Finland

SaunaThe sauna is perhaps Finland's most significant contribution to the world and the world's vocabulary. The sauna is essentially a room heated to 70–120°C; according to an oft-quoted statistic this nation of 5 million has no less than 2 million saunas, in apartments, offices, summer cottages and even Parliament. In ancient times, saunas being the cleanest places around were the place to give birth and heal the sick, and the first building constructed when setting up a new household.If invited to visit a Finnish home, you may be invited to bathe in the sauna as well — this is an honour and should be treated as such, although Finns do understand that foreigners may not be keen about the idea. Enter the sauna nude after taking a shower, as wearing a bathing suit or any other clothing is considered a bit of a faux pas, although if you are feeling shy, you can wrap yourself in a bath towel. When there are guests, men and women usually bathe separately. The temperature is regulated by throwing water onto the stove kiuas: the resulting rush of heat, known as löyly, is considered the key to the sauna experience. Some sauna-goers also like to flagellate themselves with leafy branches of birch vihta in western Finland, vasta in eastern Finland, which creates an enjoyable aroma and improves blood circulation.Depending on the occasion, the temperature in a Finnish sauna may start quite hot and gradually cool down over the hours, especially in a wood-heated sauna. The lower benches are cooler, the corner that is the furthest away from the stove is usually the hottest place.In work-related events, the actual decision-making frequently takes place in the sauna afterwards.In "public" saunas hotels, gyms and the like, it is customary to sit on a paper towel don't forget to take it out when leaving. The environment is rather hostile towards germs, so there is no need to worry about catching a disease from the sweaty wooden bench. If the heat is too much, cup your hands in front of your mouth or move down to a lower level to catch your breath.

In winter, it is common to go for a swim in an ice hole in a nearby lake. The ground can be much colder than the water - use beach sandals or the like, if possible.After you've had your fill of sauna, you can cool off by heading outside for a dip in the lake or, in winter, a roll in the snow — and then head back in for another round. Repeat this a few times, then cork open a cold beer, roast a sausage over a fire, and enjoy total relaxation Finnish style.These days the most common type of sauna features an electrically heated stove, which is easy to control and maintain. In the countryside you can still find wood-fired saunas, but purists prefer the now very rare traditional chimneyless smoke saunas savusauna, where the sauna is heated by filling it with hot smoke and then ventilated well before entering.Anyone elderly or with a medical condition especially high blood pressure should consult their physician before using a sauna.

Accommodation in Finland is expensive, but many large hotels are cheaper during the weekends and summer. In addition to the usual international suspects, check out local chains Cumulus (http://www.cumulus.fi/), Scandic (http://www.scandichotels.fi/), Finlandia (http://www.finlandiahotels.fi/) and Sokos (http://www.sokoshotels.fi/). The small but fast-growing Omena (http://www.omena.com) chain offers cheap self-service hotels, where you book online and get a keycode for your room, with no check-in of any kind needed.

One of the few ways to limit the damage is to stay in youth hostels retkeilymaja, as the Finnish Youth Hostel Association (http://www.hostellit.fi/) has a fairly comprehensive network throughout the country and and a dorm bed usually costs less than €20 per night. Many hostels also have private rooms for as little as €30, which are a great deal if you want a little extra privacy.

An even cheaper option is to take advantage of Finland's right to access, or Every Man's Right jokamiehenoikeus, which allows camping, hiking, and berry and mushroom picking as well as simple rod and hook fishing on uncultivated land. Since this is occasionally mis-interpreted by visiting foreigners, it may be a good idea to discuss travel plans with a local - or simply ask - to avoid embarrassing situations. Note that making a fire requires landowner's permission.

For a taste of the Finnish countryside, an excellent option is to stay at a cottage mökki, thousands of which dot the lake shores. These are generally best in summer, but there are also many cottages around Lapland's ski resorts. Prices vary widely based on facilities and location: simple cottages can go for as little as €20/night, while luxurious multistory mansions can go for 10 times that. Beware that, while all but the most basic ones will have electricity, it's very common for cottages to lack running water: instead, the cottage will have an outhouse pit toilet and you're expected to bathe in the sauna and lake. Renting a car is practically obligatory since there are unlikely to be any facilities shops, restaurants, etc within walking distance. The largest cottage rental services are Lomarengas (http://www.lomarengas.fi) and Nettimökki (http://www.nettimokki.com), both of which have English interfaces.

Virtually every lodging in Finland includes a sauna see box for guests — don't miss it! Check operating hours though, as they're often only heated in the evenings and there may be separate shifts of men and women.